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Writing Challenge: The Story of John

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John had been here before, a long time ago. I watch as his eyes follow the train tracks into a copse of trees. His chocolate brown pupils have turned milky with age and look almost purple against the bloodshot whites.

“That was almost sixty years ago,” he says dreamily.

Then he straightens his shoulders, hitches up his belted black dress pants shiny with wear, and looks directly at me. “That’s when God put his hand on me and called me back,” he says with a vigorous nod.

John knows the moment he left God. He was fourteen, living in a small town in North Carolina not far from where his family had been enslaved a few generations before. One Sunday after church, John opined to his mama that he didn’t think he believed in the God that Granny’s pastor talked about, “the one who sends people to Hell and tells us we are despicable creatures. No sir, I didn’t know that God.”

“Mama whipped me good that time,” he said. But he was used to it. His mother often disappeared, going on drinking binges and leaving him alone for days at a time, only to beat him when she returned.

A few days later, still sore from the thrashing, John stepped out of a movie theater into the bright afternoon sunlight. His guilt-ridden mama had treated him to the show. “All the white folks were on the ground floor and all us blacks were up above. I decided it should not be like that. Things were wrong. That’s when I decided to go where the train goes.”

Going where the train goes...

Going where the train goes…

That’s also when John told his first lie. He asked a man outside the theater to give him a lift to the depot, and told him he had permission from his mother.

Then John hopped a train.

“Just like that,” he said. “My mama kept disappearing, so I disappeared.”

Enslavement and Liberation

By the time I noticed we were walking, we were some distance down the tracks. John was striding from tie to tie as if his feet had rediscovered an old familiar pathway, like fingers recalling a musical instrument after a lifetime away. I trailed behind.

“I had to lie again when I got to Raleigh,” John said over his shoulder. “I told the man at the depot I was sixteen and that my parents had died.” The man helped John find a job on one condition: that he go back to school. “Yes sir, God had his hand on me all along.” John shakes his head in wonder.

He stayed in school and worked afternoons at a hot dog stand. On Sundays, he would make good money selling wine and whiskey from behind his stand. “Soon enough I couldn’t do without the stuff; I was an alcoholic just like Mama.”

John slows his gait and looks up and down the tracks and over at the copse of trees. “Right about here,” he says, stopping,”right here.”

“One night I was sitting by the tracks — here — with another wino, wondering where we were going to find the money for more booze. All of a sudden, I see he’s crying. I asked him, ‘What’s the matter, Pokey? Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to get more wine before we go to sleep.’

‘It’s not that,’ Pokey answered. ‘It’s you I’m worried about — you’re not going to make it.'”

John is silent for a while, as if reliving that conversation.

“That was my low point, yes it was,” he says finally. He toes the dust with his black lace-up shoe. “I thought about it all night. After that I went to an AA meeting and had a miracle. God took away my desire for alcohol. It’s more than drinking, it’s liberation . . . that’s where I found the true God.”

Pokey went to a few meetings with John, but he’s the one who didn’t make it. “He died of alcoholism in his forties,” John says, “but he saved my life.”

* * * * * *

Based on a true story (John’s name has been changed) and in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, which this week offered a selection of photographs and introductory lines to kick off a story. I chose the train tracks and a variation of “I had been here before, a long time ago.” Photo credit: Cheri Lucas Rowlands/The Daily Post.

Wrong Turns: Hold the Map Loosely

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One of the nice things about getting older, at least for me, is that I don’t get lost anymore. I may occasionally feel lost, but I know I’m not truly lost. 

This weekend, I was driving the winding roads of western North Carolina with two friends in my car, returning from four days at the Wild Goose Music Festival in Hot Springs. Nothing looked familiar, and I realized Suzanne was taking us home a different way than we had come. 

There was a lot of map rustling and Siri debating as we approached a crossroads, and I felt tense because I sensed my friends were getting tense. We might get lost! We might BE lost and not even know it!

“Is that going to be a slow and winding road?” 

“That’s not the way we came!” 

“Does that get us to the interstate faster?”

“Make a U-turn; let’s ask at that gas station!”

Thing is, I knew that both roads would get us where we needed to be. I wasn’t sure which was most direct, or whether people might laugh at me for choosing a silly route, but I knew that technically, I wasn’t lost. 

Spiritual Navigation 

My circuitous spiritual journey has taught me a bit about navigation. Mostly, not to panic.

Wandering Path

Wandering Path

Here are some things I’ve learned about getting literally and metaphorically “lost” in life.

  • You can see beautiful things and meet interesting people on the side roads of life, the roads you didn’t plan to take. The unplanned vistas and visits are often the most memorable.
  • Sometimes the slower roads are the better ones. You can absorb your surroundings and appreciate the present moment when you eschew the interstate and tootle along with your foot propped up on the dashboard (yes, I drive like that) and a Starbucks soy chai latte in your hand. You see real people sitting on their porches, not shadowy heads behind a windshield.
  • When you’re off-course, ask for assistance. This allows other people to help you, which makes them feel good and boosts your belief in ultimate goodness. We’re all on this trip together.
  • Choose your traveling companions and the soundtrack of your trip carefully. Choose people who laugh easily and don’t take themselves or the journey too seriously. Choose to listen to the positive and the upbeat in the universe, not to the critical voices in your head or to the negativity and nonsense polluting our culture.
  • Hold the map loosely. There is more than one way to get where you need to be. Someone else’s route might not be best for you. As long as you’re facing the right direction (when all else fails, look for the sun; look to the light), you are going to arrive at your destination.
  • Rest assured that things will work out in the end. You’ll get where you need to be if you pay attention. Even at the ultimate end of the journey — the one we usually deny and try to avoid at all costs — it’s all going to be OK. We are safe. There’s a cosmic navigator driving this space ship. Relax.

 You Can’t Get There From Here

When I read the WordPress Daily Post writing challenge asking us to write about the last time we got lost, the first thing that popped into my head was a riff from Firesign Theatre. Unless you are of a certain age, you won’t remember this hysterical stream-of-consciousness comedy group from the late sixties/early seventies. Some of us had their albums memorized. If you like Monty Python, try to dig up some Firesign.

Firesign Theatre

Firesign Theatre

I share this because I think it enhances my points above, but also because it’s ridiculous and I couldn’t help it:

NICK DANGER: Hey, pop!

POP: All right, hold your horses.

NICK: Where am I?

POP: (pause) You can’t get there from here.

NICK: But I’m looking for the Same Old Place.

POP: Ohhh! You must mean the old Same place! It’s right out back, sonny. Here’s the key.

— From the album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?

Lost in Yellow

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Today, I went for a hike around Meetinghouse Pond in southern New Hampshire.

Turns out, it wasn’t so  easy to follow the yellow-blazed trail markers through the blazing yellow trees.

I rested on a bench by the pond, and traced with my finger the letters carved into the wood.

 

I watched the wind ripple the water and thought, it’s OK to be lost.

***

** You’ll notice the photo montage is something new for me. Sometimes I think my blog sounds a bit like a therapy session or a stream of consciousness, so . . . I’m responding to the WordPress Weekly Challenge, And Now For Something Completely Different. **  Be glad I got bored with doing Top Ten Reasons to be a Vegetarian — though you may still see that at some point!

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/weekly-writing-challenge-and-now-for-something-completely-different/

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